Posted on 23rd October 2021
The year 2019 saw the long overdue publication in English of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, its Russian original having been published in the Soviet Union in 1952 (albeit in censored form).1 Its appearance is particularly welcome to the English-speaking reader because it provides the missing first half (in a sense that will need qualifying) to the novel for which Grossman is most famous in the West, Life and Fate.2 This latter novel first appeared in English as far back as 1985, with reprints in 2006 and 2011, when a BBC radio adaptation brought it to a wider audience. The novel suffered a very different fate in the Soviet Union. The manuscript, on which Grossman had been working for seven years, was “arrested” by the KGB in 1961 when he attempted to get authorisation for its publication. It was only in 1988, some 24 years after Grossman’s death, that the novel finally appeared in the Soviet Union—and even then, despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalising Glasnost (“openness”) agenda, in partially censored form.3
The two novels capture one of the great turning points of 20th century history: the moment when the apparently invincible Nazi war machine was brought to a halt on the banks of the River Volga and then forced into a retreat that ended in total defeat. In their epic sweep and sprawling range of characters, some of whom were real figures, the novels invite comparison with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. That late 19th century Russian masterpiece depicted an earlier turning point of European history, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s retreat from Moscow in 1812 also spelt the end of a mighty empire.
Grossman was fully conscious of the parallel—there are many references in the text to Tolstoy’s classic. Nevertheless, Tolstoy did not, of course, experience the events he described.4 Grossman, on the other hand, was in the thick of it, reporting as a correspondent from war-torn Stalingrad itself, working in dangerous conditions alongside the mass of people doing the fighting. This journalistic immediacy makes the descriptions of, for instance, the city’s destruction particularly vivid.
Grossman’s two novels, a “dilogy”, as his modern translators call it (by analogy with “trilogy”), lack, however, the kind of unity possessed by War and Peace. Despite the chronological continuity between Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and shared major characters, the thematic material undergoes a shift of perspective, incorporating Grossman’s critical evaluation of the meaning of Stalingrad. The first novel was publishable (with some adjustments) even when Stalin was still alive; its depiction of reality, though implicitly and tentatively questioning aspects of Soviet life, did not, as the second novel was to do, raise critical questions about the regime. What the second novel brings out is the degree to which, alongside its resistance to the existential threat posed by invasion, the regime turned on the “internal enemy”. The war against fascism, which had mobilised millions, including many persecuted in the great purges of the 1930s, was supplemented by a “war” against those whose loyalty was viewed as suspect. As Grossman put it at the key moment in Life and Fate, when Germany is about to lose the battle of Stalingrad: “Freedom was the apparent aim of the war. But the sly fingers of history changed this: freedom became a way of waging the war, a means to an end”.5
War and Peace may provide the “epic” frame of reference, one suited to the unfolding historical drama. However, there is a complementary framework that looks to the work of another literary figure—the writer Anton Chekhov. His name is counterposed to Tolstoy’s in one crucial discussion between characters in Life and Fate:
Chekhov said, let’s put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man—whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we’ll never get anywhere. That’s democracy, the still unrealised democracy of the Russian people.6
The meaning and relevance of this humanism is something we shall examine later, particularly as far as the form of the novel is concerned.7
The fate of Jewry in the Second World War is central to the two novels. Grossman himself had been traumatised by what had happened to his mother. She, along with thousands of other Jews, had been rounded up by the advancing Nazi troops and massacred. He was haunted by guilt over the fact that, had he acted in time, he might have saved her, and undoubtedly some of the most searing and moving scenes of the novels stem from intense personal feeling. Furthermore, it is impossible to avoid seeing elements of autobiography in the central character, Viktor Shtrum, a theoretical physicist working for the Soviet war effort. Shtrum’s Jewishness, initially of no consequence, becomes an identity that marks him out, as it did other Soviet Jews, for persecution by the authorities.
As important is the fate of what we might call the “generation of 1937”, typified in the character of Nikolay Krymov, a Communist Party member, who also belongs to the same extended family as Shtrum, the Shaposhnikovs. The year 1937, the date of the arrest of two other, shadowy members of the family (also party members), was when the Stalin’s Great Terror was reaching its height. Former Right and Left Oppositionists were disappearing, as well as many who saw themselves as loyal to the regime but still claimed some independence of thought. This is the importance of Krymov in the structure of the novel, as a character who is in effect broken in the war for liberation that involved a different end. Ctd....